Nothing helps to push borders and expand possibilities of good journalism than a good debate based on principles and practices. Last month, I raised a number of issues pertaining to overdependence on anonymous sources in news reporting in my column, “When readers deserve more” ( July 1, 2013 ). A live wire reporter, Prashant Jha, has come up with a report, looking at the same issues, from a reporter’s point of view. His article, “The challenges of reporting,” in the Periscope section of this paper explains various systemic limitations.
He was aware of the pitfalls, when he wrote: “Journalism involves cultivating sources, and developing a degree of expertise and background. But in the process, a reporter may become so dependent on particular set of sources, or develop such strong convictions and biases, that he stops being an independent reporter altogether.” Modern journalism is a challenging profession and some of its governing terms themselves need to be unpacked for clarity of both journalists and general readers.
In their path-breaking book, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel help to understand the exact meaning of two major terms that govern good journalism — balance and fairness. They argue that these two terms are not high principles but are “really techniques — devices — to help guide journalists in the development and verification of their accounts.” They caution that balance, for instance, can lead to distortion. “If an overwhelming percentage of scientists, as an example, believe that global warming is a scientific fact, or that some medical treatment is clearly the safest, it is a disservice to citizens and truthfulness to create an impression that the scientific debate is equally split. Unfortunately, all too often, journalistic balance is misconstrued to have this kind of almost mathematical meaning, as if a good story is one that has an equal number of quotes from two sides,” they point out.
They also warn against the idea of making fairness a goal unto itself. They argue: “Fairness should mean that the journalist is being fair to the facts and to a citizen’s understanding of facts. It should not mean, ‘Am I being fair to my sources, so that none of them will be unhappy?’ Nor should it mean that journalist asking, ‘Does my story seem fair?’ These are subjective judgments that may steer the journalist away from the need to do more to verify his or her work.”
It is in this context that we must look at the issue of anonymous sources. The international news agency, The Associated Press, has a written code dealing with this often vexatious issue, and drawing from its code will not only be helpful but also build credibility over a period of time. The AP rule says that the material from an anonymous source can be used only if: “The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.”
It further lays down more guidelines: “We must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it’s relevant, we must describe the source’s motive for disclosing the information. If the story hinges on documents, as opposed to interviews, the reporter must describe how the documents were obtained, at least to the extent possible. The story also must provide attribution that establishes the source’s credibility; simply quoting “a source” is not allowed. We should be as descriptive as possible: “according to top White House aides” or “a senior official in the British Foreign Office.” The description of a source must never be altered without consulting the reporter. We must not say that a person declined comment when he or she is already quoted anonymously. And we should not attribute information to anonymous sources when it is obvious or well known. We should just state the information as fact.”
Norman Pearlstine, former editor-in-chief of Time Inc. and a trained lawyer, challenged the conventional wisdom that freedom of the press is an absolute in his book, Off the Record: The Press, the Government, and the War Over Anonymous Sources. The book deals with the way the media was used by the Bush administration to expose the identity of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative as her husband gave a report that contradicted the administration’s claim that Iraq was trying to buy weapons grade uranium from Niger.
I think it should be made a mandatory read for any journalist who is dealing with official sources because it helps to draw crucial lines before granting anonymity to high officials and administrators. Talking about his journey in writing the book, Pearlstine said: “the journey has been revealing, showing the abuse of anonymity, the incestuous relations between reporters and sources, particularly in Washington, and the far too casual way journalists can imperil their own freedom and even the survival of their publications through the careless granting of promises or through the assumption of promises never explicitly made.” A grim warning which reporters should not take lightly.